France: Crème de la cruise through Burgundy and Provence
French river cruise
Bairbre Power set sail on her first cruise, swapping the traditional sea voyage for an ultra-luxurious river cruise through Burgundy and Provence.
'Anyone ABC?," the sommelier enquired before dinner on the SS Catherine. "Give it a chance," she coaxed. "You will be surprised."
The 'C' word in question was Chardonnay, a grape with the infamous 'Marmite factor'. You either love Chardonnay, or you hate it when its too buttery and oaky. I signalled my dislike with a Gallic-style shrug. It was only Day Two of our river cruise, and already I was behaving like a French native...
The SS Catherine, Uniworld's floating five star hotel, was heading down the Saône and Rhône rivers, venturing at leisurely pace into the heart of French wine country, and this fan of robust reds and under-appreciated Provençal Rosé was positively giddy with anticipation.
I had, I must confess, boarded at Lyon with a soupçon of cruising stereotypes garnered from watching TV shows. You know the ones - blue rinse brigades, competitive queues for pile-them-high buffets, towering ice sculptures and the ubiquitous singing chefs.
There was most definitely none of that on board SS Catherine. Launched in 2014 with a seriously luxurious fit-out, this river cruise ship is named after the French acting icon, Catherine Deneuve. She is also owned by the Tollman family of The Travel Corporation - whose Red Carnation Hotels owns Ashford Castle in Ireland.
Given that they spent over €70m doing up the Co Mayo castle, that might just give you a clue to the kind of opulence in which we were travelling. The giant Murano glass chandelier and horse sculpture (pictured left) are just the start of its sumptuous decor.
I was surprised by the size and shape of the SS Catherine, too.
Within 30 minutes of our Aer Lingus flight to Lyon, we were boarding a long, slim vessel designed specifically for river cruising. Unlike the conventional, high-rise cruise ships you see berthed in ports, this was an intimate super-ship with a maximum of 120 passengers on board (and no children!), accommodated over just two floors.
Inside, all the staterooms have floor-to-ceiling windows - which adds to the floating experience, giving a front row seat for the passing scenery. My stateroom was spacious, decorated with embroidered fabric on the wall, a marble-tiled shower-room with big bottles of L'Occitane products and a bed and duvet that left me feeling like I had slept on a cloud. It came with a 'demi window' that, at the touch of a button, opened down half way - which means guests are provided with the benefits of a balcony without losing vital space in the room. I enjoyed spending time there - which is more than you might say of many cruise ships.
Then came that Road to Damascus moment, when I had to eat my words, falling accidentally en amour with a Chardonnay after casually asking the genial waiter for a token "splash of white", just to sate my curiosity. The game-changer came from Domaine du Chateau de Pierreclos in Macon Burgundy. Straw yellow in colour, medium bodied, dry with melon, green apple and pear... I fell hook, line and sinker.
Discovering new things and breaking loose from a lifetime of lifestyle prejudices is what memorable holidays are all about. And this seven-night pampering break on board such an upmarket boat certainly opened my eyes to the friendly charms of boutique cruising.
Building on my Chardonnay 'conversion', I vowed to embrace a wide range of adventures across wine, food and culture. In Lyon, I put on my student's hat and attended the Ecole de Cuisine de L'Institut Paul Bocuse. Founded by the father of nouvelle cuisine, our chef instructor on the day was Philippe Jousse who taught us how to poach quenelles of pike served with a crayfish bisque-like sauce. I was on crayfish duty, and no one was poisoned!
Later, our group of 14 critiqued our traditional Lyonnaise salad, a French bistro classic, with its frisée lettuce studded with lardons of smoked pork belly and a gloriously soft poached egg which we 'shaved' first to make it looked extra neat before popping it on top. The pupils from the ship bonded over Croze Hermitage, took 'graduation' photos of each other and returned to ship the best of amis.
The culinary adventures continued apace. I went truffle hunting with two gorgeous labradors - Ebel and Jenna (they don't eat the 'black gold' truffles, unlike pigs) - and we walked with Gilles Aymes, the Truffiere, and his wife, Phala, who introduced us to the delights of white summer truffles with a sprinkling of fleur de sel on top. We shopped at their store for gifts for foodies back home and visited the famous wine village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where we sampled its best vins rouge et blanc, and returned onboard with a new knowledge to inform choices at the nightly five-course dinner in the ship's Cézanne restaurant.
Some guests rose early for 7am yoga or stress-busting stretches in the Van Gogh lounge with the onboard wellbeing coach, Florin. Others preferred to borrow one of the ship's bicycles to explore the local town which was constantly changing and others jogged the tow path before breakfast. The exercise helped balance out culinary indulgences such as making crepe suzettes in the afternoon with the ship's chef, or learning about wine and food pairings from the sommelier, Laurentia, who is an absolute star and whose bon mots each night inspired and instructed our choices.
Ocean cruises can take you to a country a day. Here, our complement of steadily improving wine connoisseurs moved at a gentler pace. Shore excursions included a walk through the cobbled streets of Viviers, where we were treated to a private organ recital in the smallest cathedral in France. As if on cue, the sun burst through the stained-glass windows while we were treated to Handel. Moving through Tain L'Hermitage, was a highlight which took us to the steepest vineyards on the Rhône.
Some nights, we took the opportunity to disembark and check out local sights and shops. On others, we'd watch the sun-dappled water through the 'legs' of a fine Croze Hermitage on the deck outside the very cosy Bar du Leopard restaurant. The constantly evolving scenery provided an intriguing backdrop to our meals. On the move, we'd wake up in the morning and throw back the curtains to survey our new 'hood.
The fine dining was, as you would expect, top class. We ate at 7pm each night, choosing between the chef's recommendation - which also include vegetarian and 'travel light' options - as well as straightforward striploin or chicken for plainer eaters.
When I set sail on the Uniworld cruise, I never expected to find myself so close to water. At one stage, and undoubtedly the excursion highlight for me (and the one that left me with the sharpest memory and the tiredest of arms), came on the second last day when we went kayaking on the Gardon river.
As yet another splash of water (courtesy of my co-pilot's energetic paddle action) hit me in my face, I could only laugh at how I was taking river cruising to a whole new level.
A total newbie to the sport, I happily sliced my paddle through the water - close to the boat for speed, wider 9 o'clock/3 o'clock moves to turn the boat either way.
The reward came an hour into the trip when we rounded a corner, and there it was, our destination: Pont de Gard, the UNESCO-designated tri-level acqueduct which has spanned the Gardon for some 2,000 years. It was exhilarating without being overly physical and we returned, beaming like Olympians, in gloriously damp clothes.
After changing into our posh frocks, we regrouped for a celebratory dinner at which I savoured the most richly deserved glass of wine of the entire trip.
And, yes, it was a Chardonnay.
There are daily excursions and talks/demos onboard which are free. However, you can also pay for additional excursions like a trip to the Paul Bocuse école at Place Bellecour in Lyon (institutpaulbocuse.com; €115pp), and in Avignon there's a cookery class at the Hotel la Mirande (la-mirande.fr; €152)
Get me there:
Bairbre travelled with Uniworld Boutique River Cruises (1800 98 98 98; uniworld.com), which has the seven-night Burgundy & Provence river cruise on SS Catherine from €2,299pp departing August 21 (other dates available).
Prices include transfers, excursions, all meals and unlimited onboard drinks. Flights extra (Bairbre flew to Lyon with aerlingus.com).
In the footsteps:
Explore the world of Vincent van Gogh in Arles where the Dutch post-impressionist painted so many of his iconic paintings. His sparsely furnished Yellow House is no more but step back in time and into the canvas of his Café Terrace at Night - and visit the Place de Forum and have a Kir at the café named after the artist.